Spirituality is the Weed of the Masses: A Healing Session with Karl Marx

What do marijuana and spirituality have in common?

People self-medicate with both of them to get through life in this messed up capitalist society.

Karl Marx predicted this back in the day.  If we could have a session with him, what would we discuss?

My video and essay below explore these questions.  These are the fruit of several years of reflection and writing.  I hope you enjoy them!

Spirituality is the Weed of the Masses: A Healing Session with Karl Marx 

If you're stressed out and anxious you're not alone.
Poster from the Occupy movement in 2012

Most people are anxious.  And that's because capitalist society is stressful as hell. Many of us are trying to heal from real traumas in our lives, while our society keeps traumatizing us and everyone around us.

Millions of us are self-medicating to deal with this stress.  Some turn to weed.  Some turn to spiritual / religious practices. Some turn to both.

Both are coping mechanisms; both are self-care and good medicine.  Both can also become addictions.

 To heal from our traumas, we need to connect with each other; we need to embody love.  And ultimately, we need to free ourselves from the systems of oppression that keep traumatizing us.  Both weed and spirituality can help us procrastinate and avoid these challenges.  Or they can help us face them gracefully.

To explore these contradictory realities, I'm summoning the ancestral memory of Karl Marx, the 19th century communist philosopher who famously compared religion and drugs ("religion is the opiate of the masses").

Growing up Catholic, I always hated that comparison because I thought he was making fun of religious people like me.  Then I realized that a lot of stoners turn their smoking habits into religious rituals. I've seen people share and pass weed as if they are the holy apostles breaking bread. Maybe Marx wasn't trying to put down religion; maybe instead, he was compassionately perceiving the religious aspects of drug use, and the addictive aspects of religion.

What if he had reversed the metaphor and said that opium is the religion of the masses? For a lot of people today, would that religion be alcoholism?  Or getting stoned? Or watching Netflix?  And why do people do these things in the first place?  Doesn't it come back to the same issue Marx was analyzing: how capitalism makes life feel like it's not worth living, and how we all strive for some sacred substance that can elevate us above all the bullshit, whether it's the Holy Eucharist or some good kush?
If you and your friends could have a session with Karl Marx, what would you talk about? 
I have a feeling that Marx came up with his drug metaphor because he liked to kick it with factory workers.  He learned how they coped with their brutal and alienating jobs, for better and for worse.  He coped with his life as a poor refugee by chain smoking cigarettes and writing obsessively.  Imagine if he could kick it with you and your friends today, after a long week at work or school.  Imagine you're doing whatever you do to relax: singing in a gospel choir, passing a blunt, or meditating out in the woods.   What would your conversations with the old man reveal about religion, drugs, spirituality, anxiety, and capitalism today?

This essay is an exploration of what I would add to such a session,  based on my own experiences, research, and conversations with fellow members of the working classes - and people who skip classes to smoke ;)

Through my entire life I've had close relationships with people who have survived trauma and are coping with it through religion and / or weed. Now I teach in a program for youth who have dropped out of high school, and many of them are highly dependent on weed to cope with their own traumas.

It is a stressful job, and I've had to really hone my practices of embodied spirituality in order to show up well every day.  I've also had to heal from my own traumas, heartbreak, and anxiety, a process I'm still going through.  I've been active in social movements and organizing for over 12 years, trying to team up with folks who want liberation from all the incarceration, police violence, patriarchy, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism my students and loved ones face, some of the very things folks deal with by smoking weed.  This essay is informed by all of these journeys.

Of course my own experience is limited, and I don't have all the answers. If you're also struggling, I'm curious:  if you, me, Marx, and our friends could have a session, what would we say to each other while we chill together? Maybe exploring these questions can help us learn how to heal together, so we can become dangerous to the system that's destroying all of us in different ways.

1. Purgatory 

Our lives in this late capitalist society are uncanny; the best novelists and filmmakers couldn't make up the stories we live every day.  On the surface, everything seems stable, but deep down, we know it's all changing.

Youth left out of the economy are rioting worldwide. Sea levels are rising. The people who make the devices you might be reading this on are striking or jumping out of their factory dorms to commit suicide.

Seattle, the night they failed to indict
 the cop who murdered Mike Brown
This leave me anxious.  By that, I don't mean I'm afraid. Or optimistic.  There are no clear outcomes to fear or grasp; instead, the future is a cloud of unknowns and desires for the (im)possible.

So I take a deep breath and weave my body into that cloud of unknowing, holding my friends tight like we're dodging flash bangs in a street protest. Our vision is suspended by pepper spray. There are triggers everywhere, and no warnings, but we know we've got each others' backs.  We are learning to walk by love, not by sight.

I realize that breath I took is part of the planet's changing climate.   I can't back out of this struggle.  I am physically connected to it.

When we really allow ourselves to feel all of this, it brings up unspeakable emotions and sensations.  They can only be expressed partially, in the language of poetry, spirituality, science fiction, myth, and scripture.  We wonder if this is the moment our ancestors have been preparing us for. 

The Italian poet Dante imagined
purgatory as a twisting, uphill path
I reach back into my Catholic upbringing to find language for it, and I imagine it as purgatory, a twisted path between the past and the future, sin and liberation, traversed by nomadic soul-flesh.

Recent events from Tahrir Square to Ferguson show us that everyday people can still make history.  But the actions we're taking in the wake of these events have left us wandering somewhere between the hell of capitalism and the heaven of a new society.  Like Moses, we're headed somewhere, following a pillar of clouds and fire, but we don't know if we'll make it there before nightfall.

Political, economic, ecological, and personal crises are deepening.  Race, gender, and class are straining, changing, destabilizing our identities.

Many of us no longer entertain the illusion that capitalism allows us to realize our dreams. At a deeper level, some of us have slipped out of the entire legacy of empire, statecraft, and hierarchy, because we know it's destroying the planet and our lives.

Ferguson Missouri, 2014 
If so many of us are loosing faith in the system, why the hell isn't the revolution starting yet?  Why didn't the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore spread to every city?  Why haven't those strikes in Chinese factories spread to shut down the global economy?

There are many ways to answer these questions.  But I think one reason is that we're still learning to trust our guts, and each other.   We still can't describe the reality we are intuitively building together; we want to destroy the old system, but we still aren't confident in our collective ability to replace it with something better.  The system has trained us to suppress that kind of imagination.  And this has fragmented our ability to strategize. As I argue below, critically engaging with spirituality, religion, and science fiction might help us grow this capacity.

Many of us are skeptical of past revolutionary visions that identified the working class as the singular force destined to unite humanity into an effective anti-capitalist strategy, ending domination forever. And we have good reason for that, unfortunately.  We look at history and our contemporary reality and we see proletarians dominating each other every day,  dividing over race, gender, and gang affiliation,  instead of uniting against the system on the terms of the most oppressed. It's what the Endnotes journal calls "unity in separation".  We also have the dead weight of Soviet prison camps hanging over our imaginations, and the capitalists keep telling us "look what happened last time you tried to make a revolution - clearly, there is no alternative."

In response to this situation, some sink into nihilism, trying to enjoy the moment while they wait for the sea levels to rise and the stock markets to crash.  Some prepare themselves to survive the coming crises by learning to grow food or shoot guns. Some throw themselves into activism, trying to develop the social and political skills necessary to make collective decisions under increasingly stressful circumstances. Others hold out faith in the possibility of dramatic historical events that will unite the oppressed and dispossessed.

To borrow a term from Biblical and Qur'anic theology, each of these perspectives are practical eschatologies - they are ways of orienting to the ultimate realities of life, death, change, time, and possible rebirth.  Whether we pose the issue in secular or religious terms, we are haunted by these realities.
Global warming intertwines eschatology with our daily breath  
While we wait in hope and fear to make the revolution,  many of us turn to spirituality to make it through daily life in this crumbing society.  Like the early Christians huddling in the Roman sewers, we begin to sink into the fact that everything is about to change, but it might not change today, or next year, or even this decade.  In the meantime, what rituals, what liturgies, what meditation practices can keep the flame alive while we find each other, connect, and prepare?

Many of these practices we call "spirituality."

As I wrote here and here,
"The experiences we call spiritual are in fact real, embodied social experiences; they are connected to the politics, economics, and culture of the broader society we live in, though they can never be reduced to them.  We call these experiences spiritual precisely because they don't fit neatly into the identities and roles this society has set up for us, so they appear to be exceptional, or even sacred.  In other words, spirituality is one of the terms we use to describe the anomalous and mysterious aspects of capitalist society, the ways in which society cannot contain our desires and activities."
Spirituality is an embodied form of self-care, a way to reduce anxiety and heal our bodies so we can keep up the struggle.

In that sense, it's a lot like smoking weed.

2. Marx's Red-Eyed Ghost Still Haunts Us 

This is something that Karl Marx anticipated.   In 1843, he wrote "Religion is the general theory of this world… its logic in popular form...The struggle against religion is... indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion."

In other words, when people rebel against religion they are actually rebelling against society. This is where I got the idea for my blog's title. Building off of Marx, I'm arguing that spirituality is the aroma of the world, bursting out of the system's pipelines.

Weed is legal here, and so is the oppression
that people try to forget by smoking it
At our school, I assign Marx's text each year as part of a unit on religious studies.  When we discussed it a few years ago, I tried to explain the concept of spiritual aroma by asking "when you smell smoke, what do you know is nearby?"  My student Marquise responded by shouting, "that fire" (referring to weed), and everyone broke out laughing.

Most of the students concluded that the aroma of Seattle society is indeed weed smoke, because people self-medicate with weed to get by.   The fact that so many people need to self-medicate shows how messed up society is.  There is a reason why the United States has higher rates of drug use and religious practice than most other industrialized countries.  This is a stressful and violent society.

 We concluded that the aroma of Seattle is also spirituality, for the same reason.  In other words, weed is the spirituality of the masses, and spirituality is the weed of the masses. 

If Karl Marx's specter of communism is still haunting history, its red eyes might light up in laughter ;)

For Marx, religion and spirituality are "one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".

We'll get back to the weed in a second, and we'll talk about how its a bit different from opium.  But in the meantime, let's take a quick detour into the heated debate between science and religion that formed the context for Marx's drug metaphor.  Marx has a totally different take on these issues than what you might expect.  It's closer to the views of visionary fiction writers like Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown than it is to many Marxist atheists today.

3. Scientific Socialism is Science Fiction 

Unfortunately, many of Marx's followers interpret his comparison between religion and drugs in ways that justify hostility to all religious and spiritual people (and presumably all drug users).  They argue that Marxism is scientific, and religion is not.  In other words, they say that the problem with religion is that it clouds your mind like drugs, so you can't discover scientific truth.

But for Marx, the key question wasn't: "is religion true"?  It was: "does this particular religious practice function as a tool of oppression or liberation? Or both"?  He was interested in overthrowing oppression, not eradicating religion.  He wrote:
"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower." 
Many Marxists- and many critics of Marxism - miss that point.  As Loren Goldner has pointed out, whether people love or hate Marx they tend to equate Marx's critique of religion with Voltaire's dogmatic atheism (see footnote 1).  Voltaire and other thinkers of the upper class, bourgeois Enlightenment claimed religion is backwards superstition. They wanted to pick other people's flowers while giving them modern chains.  Some even argued that religious people should be forced to modernize themselves.

These views worked in tandem with racism and colonialism. European colonists saw themselves as more rational than the indigenous people whose land they occupied; they used criticisms of indigenous spirituality to justify their occupations. These were the views of the rising capitalist class, the very class Marx dedicated his life to destroying.

It's true that Marx uncritically celebrated European modernization early in his life, especially in the Communist Manifesto.  He was a product of his time and place. He thought capitalist modernization was a necessary evil on a linear path to communism, a path he saw emerging in high-tech European factories, which would eventually be taken over by their workers and used to produce wealth for all.  But as Kevin Anderson has proven in his book Marx at the Margins, Marx abandoned this view later when he began to learn from anti-colonial struggles and from indigenous communities around the world; he began to imagine multiple paths to communism, which might not follow the same European industrial model (see footnote 2).

As Loren Goldner has shown,  Marx's critique of religion was always more complex than Voltaire's dogmatic atheism. In fact,  Goldner argues that Marx himself drew from spiritual traditions such as German romanticism and Renaissance cosmobiology. By attacking cosmobiology, Voltaire and other "Enlightened" state civil servants "deflated and expelled a universe brimming with life, in which, further, human imagination was central." Goldner claims that "this cosmobiological world view was an indisputable precursor of Marx’s 'sensuous transformative praxis' and hence of modern socialism. By its notion of human participation of the constitution of the world... it was closer to Marx than any of the intervening Enlightenment views."

I wonder whether these cosmobiological traditions were shaped by indigenous knowledge and by women's healing practices that the state labeled witchcraft.  I'm also interested in how they might have survived  in subterranean ways outside Marx's European context.  For example, did they merge with spiritually-inspired trans-Atlantic revolts against slavery and colonialism?  The excellent books Caliban and the Witch and The Many Headed Hydra suggest these connections, and so does Goldner's essay "The fusion of anabaptist, Indian and African as the American radical tradition".  All of these texts claim that contemporary revolutionary traditions have their roots in these multiracial, spiritually-inspired revolts against the formation of capitalism (see footnote 3).

In any case, there is clearly more to Marx's critique of religion than simply lining up against religion, or for it.  Like he does in his "immanent critiques" of culture and philosophy, Marx is trying to draw out a vibrant tendency in what he is critiquing, liberating this tendency from the ways it is currently exploited to serve the prevailing social order.  This is more similar to Bruce Lee than it is to Voltaire and his dead white male buddies.
Dialectics can break bricks, and Europeans don't have a monopoly on them
The Marxist Ernst Bloch develops this method, exploring utopian spiritual and religious narratives, and asking what they might tell us about the futures we are fighting for.  Many utopian myths that locate a golden era in the past might actually be expressing truths that human beings are striving to create in the future; they narrate what "will have been true" at some future point (see footnote 4).

What Marx and Bloch do for religion is similar to what Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown do for science fiction in their book Octavia's Brood, a collection of visionary fiction writing by activists.  They recognize that just because something is fiction or speculative does not make it untrue; it may in fact speak to elements of an emergent reality we could create together.

Octavia's Brood is
a new volume of visionary fiction
 writing by activists
The editors argue that activism itself
 is a form of visionary fiction
Speaking about the writer Octavia Butler, Imarisha says
 "she wanted to be one of many Black female sci fi writers. She wanted to be one of thousands of folks writing themselves into their present and into the future.  We believe that is the right that Octavia claimed for each of us - the right to dream as ourselves, individually and collectively.  But we also think it is a responsibility she handed down - are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of 'the real', and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?" (see footnote 5).  
Marx also dared to do this.  He was writing around the same time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankentein, considered a foundational text in modern science fiction.  Shelley and the Romantic Era writers were launching critiques of scientific modernization and the Englightenment, pointing out the ways in which the capitalist science of their times had failed to deliver on its promises of human emancipation, and was creating monstrosities instead.  They often turned toward spiritual themes, calling for deeper engagement with nature and the inward dimensions of human experience.  They hoped we could access these to control and check the growth of technology.  All of these themes have been explored further by science fiction writers up to this day, and they are central to many spiritual movements as well.

Marx emerged out of intellectual circles that were engaged with the Enlightenment and its  Romantic critics.  He was not content with simply dreaming of the possibilities that unrestrained science might offer for the future.  Nor was he content criticizing science and calling for a return to Nature.  Instead, he tried to take the dreams of the Enlightenment (progress through science) and of the Romantics (interconnection, spiritual growth, and proto-ecology), and to merge them into actual revolutionary praxis engaged with the specific economic and political developments of his time.  He tried to ask the question "what strategies of revolutionary struggle can actually make some of these dreams a reality"?

He argued that the proletariat  - all of us who don't own the means of production - are the force capable of doing this. It will not come automatically through some technological savior, nor will it come from waiting for the mystical forces of Nature to check humanity's destruction of the planet.   The real soul of our technological and spiritual growth is our own social activity.  We ourselves are part of nature. We are our bodies, and our creative powers are part of the planet's metabolism.  We are the ones who might shape a better future that honors our creative species being as it has grown through ages.  We are also the ones who will jettison all the dogmatic historical baggage that weighs on our brains like nightmares.

In that sense, Marx's writings could be considered a type of science fiction.  Or, more accurately, they could be considered "visionary fiction" along the lines of flight that Octavia's Brood traces.

 It could even be argued that he imagined the revolution as a clash between the transpersonal vampire cyborg he calls Value on the one hand, and the planet's metabolism on the other -  this clash playing out within the bodies of workers.  Tracing that story out of his first volume of Capital would be another whole essay!

 Marx was prophetic in the way that visionary fiction writers are prophetic.  The weight of his work doesn't rest on his ability to literally predict the future with scientific probability (some of his predictions came true, some didn't, and the verdict is still out on a whole bunch of them).  What is more important is that we can learn to approach life the way he did: to identify society's deepest dreams and to sketch out strategies by which we might try to realize some of these together.

This "scientific socialism" is not totally divorced from currents of utopian socialism; it just takes utopian dreams a step further by attempting to make them real. This always means realizing them imperfectly, because real life is a mess!  For Marx, communism is the art of merging our deepest desires with the actually existing movements of our fellow proletarians, what I described here as the proletariat's curves of flight.

With this methodology in mind, there is much more to explore in Marx's complex analogy between religion, spiritual aromas, and drugs.  So now we can get back to the weed…

4. Getting Medicated in the Era of Anxiety 

Many people today engage in "sessions", smoking weed together and talking about what our society is becoming.  When people do this, it raises questions that are usually off limits in a society based on conventional logic and linear paths of family-school-jobs-family-nursing home-death. The words and smoke in the air are the aroma of the messed up world we live in, and our dreams for a better life.  They could remain stoner utopias, or they could become guides to actual praxis if we can build solid friendships with people who want to try to make them happen together.

Of course, I'm stretching Marx a bit when I call spirituality the weed of the masses instead of the opiate of the masses.   Opiates are painkillers like morphine and heroin.  They make people sedated so they can escape the pain of living in an alienating society.  Weed and spirituality might also be aromas this society produces, but they are different scents that travel along different lines of flight.

image from CrimethInc's review of  "We are All Very Anxious"
A popular essay by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness sheds some light on this difference.  They argue that each phase of capitalism has it's own dominant affect, or emotional control system (what practitioners of generative somatics might call a collective embodied shape).

 In Marx's time,  they argue, capital ruled primarily through misery.  The capitalists claimed you could become rich like them if you worked hard enough, but after working 16 hour days in a textile factory, all you had to show for it was a broken body and a cholera-infested tenement apartment.   Perhaps some opium might get your mind of of that, and if that didn't work, maybe you could try going to a church that tells you to suck it up and keep working so that you can eventually eat pie in the sky with Jesus when you die.

There are some flaws with this narration.  The Institute's analysis of misery is more accurate for Marx's European context.  In the United States, capital offered the dream of upward mobility only to impoverished European migrant workers; indigenous people faced genocide, and Black people were enslaved. Also, capital still produces misery for billions of people today, and it still produces religions that advocate a rapture, where a few people fly away leaving everyone else to rot in the hell capitalism has built on this planet.  Unsurprisingly, capitalism also still produces large amounts of opiate-based heroin, and a heroin epidemic is spreading across the U.S. (including in my hometown, which was supposed to be one of the final resting places for the whitened descendants of those European migrant workers.)

But today, capitalism also works in new ways, so it's not a surprise that drugs - and  spiritualities- are also changing.  Today, capital doesn't just rule through misery.  It also systematically produces anxiety, which has become its dominant method of control.  It does this by making more and more of us precarious, disposable, replaceable, and self-surveiling.  It provides the means of life to more of the working class, but reserves the right to selectively take them away from people who refuse or fail to preform their roles.  That's why the Institute for Precarious Consciousness argues that we are ALL very anxious. (Note: As Frank Wilderson argues, everyone who disobeys Capital experiences subjective vertigo, what we are calling anxiety. But Black people ALSO experience objective vertigo, the constant anti-Black violence that happens even if they don't rebel. This is a crucial difference.  As Kali Akuno argues, this anti-black violence is rooted in capitalism treating Black folks as a surplus population.  This involves another whole level of anxiety) 

"Rather than science fiction, trend forecasts effectively
function as consumer fiction", a genre designed to
reduce anxiety - rhizome.org, commenting
on the khole trendcasting project 
Capital has always pitted us against each other to find work, but this is becoming increasingly intense as computers and robots replace more and more workers.  Your resume, your customer service skills, your ability to be a team player, and your social network avatar define you like a personal brand name, and you need to obsessively maintain them because there are a growing number of people competing for the same social roles. It is like a giant Hunger Games or Battle Royale, and some people start the game with inherited resources while others start it with accumulated intergenerational trauma and the barrels of police guns pointed at them.

If you walk into any club or party on the weekend, there are at least a dozen small businesses operating in the crowd, as individuals hustle and promote themselves. As Jay Z put it, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man…" The competitive need to promote yourself exists among consultants, anti-racist trainers, healers,  graphic designers, and non-profiteers, just like it does among drug dealers.  It's just dressed up in professionalized language.  At the end of the day, it's all social capital, and it all comes down to your reputation.

Most of us are not actually small businesses and never will be.  We're just proletarians working for someone else…. but even in traditional workplaces, we have to perform a certain competitive personal branding to keep our jobs.  Welcome to Starbucks, I'm super friendly and hot, can I get you a latte? 

Yet what we are supposed to perform is never clear - the capitalists can't seem to decide which spectacle they want us each to reproduce, and the standards are always changing.  For example, in many jobs we are commanded to innovate.  We are required to be creative and edgy, while at the same time we are expected not to rock the boat.  Capitalism is confusing as hell.

Weed, and weed-like spiritualities, might help heal the pain of a sore back after a long day lifting boxes or the effects of having to smile every time you serve a latte to a rude sexist customer who you really want to slap in the face.  But weed and spirituality are not necessarily escapist.  They also focus attention on anomalous aspects of reality, on aspects of our lives that leak outside of the roles we have to perform.  They lessen our anxiety about these leaks and allow us to laugh about them or to ponder their depths.

As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze suggested, weed allows us to play with our perception until it reveals webs of connections that are really there but can't be named publicly in a society where everyone and everything is neatly labeled and separated from everything else (see footnote 6).   This perceptual play could lead back into encountering and confronting the problems in our lives, not necessarily escaping them into the clouds.

If we use weed, instead of opium, as a metaphor for our spiritual practices, this might highlight the immanent aspects of these practices - the fact that they get us stoned by intensifying aspects of life in this world, instead of soaring above it in rapture to sleep in the bosom of Abraham.  In the 21st century, the roots of these specific drugs and these specific spiritualities might stay planted in the planet, pointing forward to the future instead of up toward heaven.  They are horizontal, not vertical eschatologies.  Like Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, Octavia Butler, and the writers of Octavia's Brood, they express various futures that could rupture out of the present.

5. Pursuing happiness is an addictive vacation that is always too short 

Of course, we could also opt to just stay stuck on the couch depressed about the gap between our dreams and reality, seeking another experience that will get our minds off of the seemingly impossible mission our generation has inherited from history.  That is certainly what the capitalist system would prefer, and it is exactly the kind of mindset Marx was critiquing when he compared spirituality and drugs.

Capitalism, especially in America, pushes us to cultivate creative powers, and to dream big.  Then it robs us of these powers and dreams through dead-end jobs, stress, boredom, sexual violence, loneliness, repression, paranoia, addiction, domination, poverty and ecological wreckage. This is the world we live in, and it won't stop until we change - or destroy - that world. 

But instead, we inhale the spiritual aromas cast off by this world as it writhes and squirms against its chains.  Some prefer the aroma of weed,  some prefer the incense of a traditional Catholic Church, and some prefer fresh mountain air on a vacation.  In each case, these spiritualities might help us escape capitalist realities for a moment, and/or they might inspire us to resist these realities.

All of these forms of spirituality, drugs, and vacationing can become addictions.  When we have so little time to relax, we want to get more out of it, so we try to intensify the quality of our experiences by maximizing their quantity. We try to do more, to force ourselves to squeeze some pleasure out of life before we return to work.

The free play and improvisation of these moments are destroyed, and we end up chasing an idol called happiness, enslaving ourselves to it.  If I just took another hit I'd be happy.  If I just quit for good I'd be happy.  If I had one more day on this vacation I'd be happy. If I just went to church more often I'd be happy.  If I could just meditate longer I'd be happy.

We imagine some role free from anxiety where we can perform serenity, insight, courage, intelligence, connection, or naturalness.  We want to be Whole because our daily lives are so precarious.

 But Jesus, the Buddha, and Marx seem to agree on one thing:  wholeness doesn't exist.  Everything changes, contradicting itself in multiple directions.  So the way out of anxiety is not a transcendent one; it is a path of learning to live through it.

And the only way to overcome the particular forms of precariousness we face today is to overthrow capitalism and to become a new society together.  A new society will not make us Whole or happy, but it will break the specific constraints that are channeling our desires, fueling the destruction of each other and the planet.  A new society means co-creating new modes of becoming, not reaching the end of history.

The pursuit of happiness is a capitalist trap.  It is an ideology that destroys joy.   It makes us count and surveil everything to see if we are maximizing our pleasure.  Our vacations and our moments of relaxation become the inverse of our jobs; both are vigilantly pushed toward maximum efficiency.

This mindset suffuses free time with the same anxiety as work, creating downward spirals in the name of upward mobility, and mental prisons in the name of freedom from our routines.

It also creates chains of competitive addictions that feed off of each other.  It allows drug cartels, corporations, and spiritual pimps to take advantage of us by promising that their product or experience will make us happy in ways that the others have failed to do.  Each one promises to help us detox from the others, for a one-time low price.

However, there are other possibilities in spiritual practices, ones that don't lead to addiction - or perhaps lead through it into renewed life.  Not every weed session, walk in the forrest, church service, or moment of meditation is an addictive vacation.  We don't do these things simply because we are trying to overcome the alienation we face at work or when we're worried about finding a job.  These practices can also bring joy, freedom, connection, and insight, and they have validity on their own terms.

Marx suggested that the only way to overthrow religion is to fulfill all of its promises; people will stop waiting for heaven when we overthrow capitalism and build heaven on earth.  But even if we did that, many of us would probably still meditate, do rituals, sing hymns, pass the blunt, or chant together; we just wouldn't be looking to these practices to save us from an alienating system that we can only overthrow through collective activity.

6.  Recovery 

Even the harmful, repressive, or alienating aspects of religion cannot simply be wiped away in a feat of revolutionary willpower.  They continue to be harmful because they function in ways analogous to addiction.  So if we want to free ourselves from them, we should study and learn about how people recover from addiction.

Recent research on addiction is proving what practitioners of harm reduction have been saying for a long time.  Addiction is not just a matter of the chemical power of the substance, it is a result of the social environment, and the way to overcome it is to improve that environment.    The famous neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hardt grew up in poverty, in a neighborhood where crack cocaine use was widespread. After doing extensive laboratory research on addiction, he came to conclusions similar to Marx's analysis of opiates:
“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments. 
“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”
In other words, people addicted to crack are not irrational rats that need to be policed and locked up.  They are human beings caught in the contradictions of capitalist society, and we need to love them instead of punishing them.

As Johann Hari put it,
"We need now to talk about social recovery -- how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog. Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention -- tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won't stop should be shunned. It's the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction -- and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever -- to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can't… For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along."
Analogously, perhaps the revolutionary Left needs to stop singing war songs about people who are addicted to religion and spirituality.  Those of us who pray and meditate are not hopelessly counterrevolutionary. We want to break our chains just as much as the serious Leftist atheists who have already plucked the flowers from their own.

Some alienated forms of religion and spirituality might even provide us with practices that could become tools and weapons we could use to build our freedom if we discover how to use them differently.

Several friends and I are studying the practices of religious congregations to see what we can adopt from them, minus all their patriarchy, homophobia, and authoritarianism.  Like spiritual communities, we are building relationships and practicing how to love, play, and heal together.  I hope we can eventually build revolutionary congregations that can do this at a larger scale.

This is one small part of a larger social recovery from the traumas of capitalism. At a certain point, we realize we want to live, and not only when we're getting high, praying, or vacationing in some pretty place. This realization leads us from spiritual escapism, into a criticism of escapist spirituality. Then it leads us into a criticism of the society that produces escapism as its spiritual aroma. Finally, we start to take action against this society, and we find new new connections with others,  and with the life blossoming within and around us.   We start this journey by running away from our lives, and continue it by living into the future in ways that push through this purgatory toward freedom.


1.  Loren Goldner's essays on this topic are all available for free on his website and or Libcom.org

The Renaissance and Rationality: The Status of the Enlightenment Today

Race and the Enlightenment Part I: From Anti-Semitism to White Supremacy, 1492-1676

Race and the Enlightenment, Pt. II: The Anglo-French Enlightenment and Beyond

 The fusion of anabaptist, Indian and African as the American radical tradition

2. Anderson, Kevin.  Marx at the Margins.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.  Also, this article by Franklin Rosemont explores similar developments in Marx's thinking.

3)  See Goldner links above, also:

Federici, Sylvia.  Caliban and the Witch.  Autonomedia, 2004.  Available for free on Libcom.

Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.  Beacon Press, 2013.   Available for free here.

4) Chapter on Ernst Bloch in Boer, Roland. Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology.  Historical Materialism, 2009.

Also, see Loren Goldner's review of Bloch's Principle of Hope here.

5) Imarisha, Walidah.  Interview in Perspectives On Anarchist Theory N. 27, 2014. p. 37.

Imarisha, Walidah and brown, adrienne maree.  Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.   AK Press, 2015.

6) Deleuze, Gilles.  Two Questions on Drugs, in Two Regimes of Madness, Revised Edition
Texts and Interviews 1975–1995. Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents, 2007.